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Shifting sands

Michael Hylton has had an impressive career. The softly spoken 66-year-old Jamaican lawyer has represented Bob Marley’s family, worked as solicitor general of Jamaica and – as a member of the rules committee of the supreme court – been responsible for drafting Jamaica’s civil procedures, which govern the conduct of lawsuits on the island. Yet there’s one particular case that stays with him, perhaps unsurprisingly. It’s not every day, after all, that you’re asked to investigate the theft of a beach.

In June 2008, 5,000 cubic metres of pristine white sand – the bulk of Coral Spring beach, a half-hectare stretch of paradise in Trelawny on Jamaica’s north coast – vanished. The beach was supposed to be the heart of a new £63 million hotel complex, but with the major attraction gone developers halted work and approached Hylton – whose private practice had only been open a few months – to find their missing sand.

Hylton took the case and travelled to Coral Spring. “It was obvious that a massive excavation had taken place,” he remembers, more than a decade later. “There were trenches of at least six feet – well above a person’s head. There were tyre tracks where they had driven in industrial diggers and they had dug until they had hit water. It was a dreadful sight.”

Hylton estimates that 250 truckloads of sand were removed from Coral Spring over 48 hours that June. People said they saw a caravan of dumper trucks leaving the beach. There were some reports that there were even police motorbikes escorting them. “I had no idea sand was so valuable,” he says. “I soon found out.”

In blatant defiance of Matthew 7, modern society has built its collective house on sand. Humans currently consume 50 billion metric tons of sand and gravel a year, twice what we were using a decade ago. From glass to silicon chips, car tyres to elastic, sand is present in nearly everything we use on a daily basis.

“We are addicted to sand,” says Aurora Torres, a Spanish ecologist who works at the Université Catholique de Louvain and Michigan State University.

“It’s a critical raw material of our civilisation.” Torres was inspired to start researching the effects of sand mining by the same Jamaican beach heist that drew Hylton into the sand. “In 2008 I was finishing my thesis about a different topic, the impact of roads and urban areas on wildlife” she says. “Then I heard about this entire beach being stolen in Jamaica. I started to dig a bit into how sand is mined and soon realised how important this extraction of construction minerals is. It is amazing that it has been under the radar for such a long time.”

“We are addicted to sand…It is a critical raw material of our civilisation”

Torres switched her attention to sand mining and discovered that extraction levels had grown rapidly since the 1960s, accelerating since 2000 to the point that today 85 percent of all products mined from the earth are sand or gravel. Despite this, little research is being done into its impact. “The focus has always been on other types of mining, such as gold,” says Torres. “We understand now the effects of precious-material mining on things like water pollution, but sand and gravel mining can be just as damaging to the environment, yet few are looking at it.”

There’s nothing too sophisticated about the way sand is mined. Typically it is scooped from open pits, dunes and beaches or dredged from river and sea beds. Torres says dredging is especially damaging, causing biodiversity loss and destroying habitats vital to river and marine life. It can also pollute drinking water and lead to the destruction of the natural sea barriers and coral reefs that protect our coastlines. “People need to be aware of the role sand plays in the ecosystem,” she says; “how important it is to maintain good sand deposits for the fishing industry, for growing crops… sand is a really valuable resource.” And its value is only increasing.

Despite being a metaphor for the infinite, grains of sand, like oil, are a limited commodity and as demand increases so does their price, which has gone up fivefold in real terms in the past 40 years. Today’s legal global sand extraction market is estimated to be worth £54 billion per year. And it’s largely down to one thing: concrete, which is typically one part cement to three parts sand to six parts aggregates such as gravel.

In his book, Making the Modern World, historian Vaclav Smil revealed that between 2011 and 2013, China used more concrete than the US did in the entire 20th century – and it wasn’t even close. In just three years, China consumed 6.6 gigatonnes of concrete compared to the 4.5 gigatonnes the US used in 100 years: almost one-and-a-half times as much. To feed its concrete habit China has become the world’s largest producer of cement and developed the world’s largest sand mine: it is estimated that 236 million cubic metres of sand are taken out of the country’s Lake Poyang each year.

While China’s consumption is startling, the growing demand for sand is a global issue. The latest UN projections expect the world’s population to increase by 2.9 billion in the next 33 years, with 80-90 percent of those additional humans living in cities. If these predictions are correct, we’ll need to build the equivalent of an extra 336 New Yorks to house the new crop of urbanites. That’s a lot of concrete, requiring a lot of sand – but, crucially, it needs to be the right kind.

“You’d be hard pressed to see more sand than you can from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai,” says geographer and author Nick Meynen, whose book Frontlines: Stories of Global Environmental Justice looks at the impact of sand mining on the environment. “Dubai is in the UAE, which includes part of the world’s largest continuous sand desert. Dune after dune stretch over an area larger than France. Yet when it came to the 330,000 cubic metres of concrete that was needed to build the world’s tallest building, Dubai didn’t have enough sand to make it! They had to import it from Australia.”

The reason sand is being sent to the desert is that not all grains are created equal. “The wind has free rein in the desert and has made sand grains too round,” says Meynen. “So much so that they do not stick together.” It’s like trying to build with a stack of marbles rather than bricks. Marine sand is better for the job, but the salt can damage the steel in reinforced concrete, so people look more to river and pit sand, which is in shorter supply, raising prices and, in some cases, leading to conflict. “Sand is the new oil,” says Meynen. “It’s only a matter of time until we see the first war fought over sand.” In fact, says Meynen, this sand battle may already be brewing. “There is ongoing tension between five countries about territorial rights in the South China Sea,” he says. “We’ve seen talk of China taking [military] action over these little islands and rocks. Now there are a lot of reasons why they are important – there’s oil, there are geostrategic reasons – but the exclusive economic zones around these islands are also full of relatively useful sand.”

There are even examples of sand mining wiping entire islands off the map, says Meynen. That’s what happened in Indonesia, where at least 24 islands are believed to have disappeared since 2005, having been cleared out and sold to neighbouring Singapore, the world’s biggest importer of sand per capita. Singapore’s sand hunger is bound up with its growth: by dumping sand-heavy aggregates into the sea it has grown its land mass by 20 percent over the last 40 years.

As if adding Sand Wars to the long and expanding list of things to worry about weren’t enough, Meynen sees another spectre ahead. “Of course the real problem is at the local level, particularly in India,” he says. “You know, the Sand Mafia.”

With the barriers to entry low and the financial rewards increasingly high, illegal sand mining has become big business for organised crime. Meynen quotes Fernando Ramadon, a Brazilian mining crimes professor who estimates the net annual worth of the illegal sand trade to be $180 billion. “In terms of monetary value it is the biggest environmental crime that exists today,” Meynen says. “The illegal ivory trade, for comparison, is estimated at $10 billion a year. Hundreds of people have died in India in the last few years over sand.” In 2015 a journalist investigating the black market in sand was kidnapped and set on fire and in 2018 a forest department ranger was crushed to death by a tractor ferrying illegally mined sand in Madhya Pradesh.

“The whole GDP growth of India is completely based on infrastructure and building and therefore sand”

The term ‘Sand Mafia’ was coined by activist Sumaira Abdulali, who has been battling the group in India for over 15 years. In 2004, she noticed that the beach near her house in Alibaug, on the outskirts of Mumbai, was shrinking. She wrote to the local authorities including photographs of trucks driving to and from the beach every night that she suspected were carting the sand away. When she was told that these photographs weren’t enough and that the miners needed to be caught red handed she set out to do just that.

“I grew up on this beach and when you see it being hauled away like that, it’s very distressing,” she says. “So one night when I saw the trucks in action I called the police and drove to the beach road expecting them to meet me there.” The police didn’t come. Instead, Abdulali believes, they contacted the sand miners, who pulled her from her car and beat her so badly that she was hospitalised. “I realised very quickly that those who attacked me were very well protected,” she says. “They were engaged in an illegal activity, which was taking place in plain sight and they were being protected by the entire system. Hence the term ‘Sand Mafia’.”

Despite the risks, Abdulali escalated her campaign. “You have to decide whether you’re going to drop it, because you’re afraid, or you’re going to continue because it needs to be done.” Abdulali chose the latter – but it almost cost her her life. In 2010 Abdulali, accompanied by a journalist and a photographer, posed as a real-estate developer to uncover what she believed was illegal sand mining outside of Mahad on India’s west coast. The group’s cover was blown, and they found themselves in a high-speed car chase along jungle dirt trails with Abdulali at the wheel.

Two SUVs tried to block Abdulali’s car as she fled. But her rally-driving husband had taught her a few tricks and she managed to avoid them, mounting a steep verge to squeeze through the tightest of gaps at a perilous angle. As her car was crossing a bridge a lorry drew level before swerving, attempting to knock them into the river below. “I braked sharply so he only hit us in front and without the force needed to knock us from the bridge,” Abdulali remembers. “Guys, big guys, got out of the truck and smashed up the car trying to get us out.” Two police officers arrived on the scene and escorted everyone involved to the nearest station, but there, rather than immediately charging the lorry driver with attempted murder they accused Abdulali of reckless driving. “I kept saying, ‘What? these guys tried to kill us!’ The people who were chasing us were just laughing. They said: ‘We told you not to mess with us; you’re in our area now.’”

Abdulali refused to accept the inaction, petitioning Mumbai’s high court which, later in 2010, banned sand extraction across the state of Maharashtra. Not that Abdulali has seen much of an impact. “Now, when illegal sand is mined, it is stored at a particular site until they have collected a certain volume,” she says. “Every time it is nearly full there will be a raid by the police who will come and confiscate it. And then the government, instead of using it to restore the environment, auctions it off. The illegally mined sand is suddenly legal and generates revenue. So that’s a very good way of putting illegally mined sand back into the legal commercial system.”

Nine years after Abdulali was almost run off the road, she is still trying to have charges of attempted murder brought against those responsible. She is waiting for a hearing, a delay she blames on political pressure. She believes India’s Sand Mafia co-opt politicians. Sometimes, she says, they go on to become politicians themselves, claiming that one sand miner even became a state’s environment minister. “It is all linked,” she says. “The whole GDP growth of India is completely based on infrastructure building and therefore sand.”

Not all sand theft is related to construction – sometimes beaches are stolen purely for their beauty. On 19th August 2019 it was reported that a French couple face up to six years in prison for stealing sand from a Sardinian beach. The unnamed pair were caught with 40kg of sand, stashed into 14 plastic bottles, in the boot of their car. Ten tonnes of sand has been confiscated from tourists at Sardinia’s airport in 2019, taken either as a souvenir or to be rebottled and sold as ornaments.

Back in Jamaica, Michael Hylton tells me that he believes the Coral Spring beach was stolen for its aesthetics. “So much sand was taken so quickly, we thought it must have been for a reason,” he remembers. “It was a period of huge growth in tourism, so we thought it was for construction. But maybe they just wanted the beach.”

Hylton’s fledgling firm hired a helicopter and scouted the north Jamaican coast for his missing sand and quickly identified two hotels with suspiciously white beaches. “The natural colour of the sand in that part of the island was dark,” he says. “We gathered what we believed to be credible evidence that our white beach had simply been layered over the top of it.”

Hylton got the helicopter to land near the beach and scooped up samples which experts examined in a lab, finding a likely match with the sand from his clients’ site. Emboldened, Hylton brought civil claims against five defendants, four of whom went to trial. Separate criminal proceedings were brought against those believed to be responsible for the theft. Neither case went well for the prosecutors. “In the criminal case people who had said they had witnessed the activities that night suddenly recanted that evidence and refused to testify,” says Hylton. “In the civil case our challenge was the judge. He reserved judgement on some issues, delayed a decision for two years and then took early retirement. So the case was abandoned. It was very frustrating. We lived that case for years. We put a lot of preparation into it, we had a strong case and it ended without even coming to proper trial.”

Ten years on, the beach has been slowly replenished through new sand being washed ashore and grains being imported from elsewhere. In December 2019, Coral Spring beach is finally welcoming its new resort, a five-star hotel offering “access to a spectacular white sand beach with turquoise waters”. Not that Hylton will be visiting again any time soon. “Oh no,” he says with a laugh when I suggest he pays the new resort a visit. “I’m not really a beach person.”

While Hylton was fighting his long campaign for sand justice in Jamaica, in the UK John Orr, Cambridge lecturer in concrete studies, was looking for ways to decrease human reliance on the substance. In 2014, while at the University of Bath, he was approached by India’s Goa Engineering College. “They said: ‘We’ve got two problems. First, sand is in short supply and concrete needs a lot of sand. And second, plastic waste is being dumped on the streets, in rivers, on beaches and so on. Can we use that plastic as a replacement for the sand that we have a shortage of?’ That seemed like a nice idea.”

Over the next four years Orr and his team discovered that replacing up to ten percent of sand with waste-plastic particles from ground-up plastic bottles resulted in concrete which was almost as strong as conventional mixtures. This approach could save 820 million tonnes of sand a year, while also helping reduce levels of plastic waste. Still, Orr isn’t getting too carried away. “It is certainly feasible and you can save lots of sand, but an even bigger win would be to just use less concrete to begin with,” he says. And it’s not just sand we’d be saving with this approach. “Cement and concrete production are responsible for five to seven percent of global CO2 emissions,” says Orr. “If we’re going to have any chance of getting to our carbon emissions targets, we’re going to have to use less concrete. We need to design structures that are less reliant on concrete, because if we don’t, then CO2 emissions are not going to get down to the levels we need them to get down to.”

Meynen agrees that the world must curb its sand addiction or face the consequences. “We are still using sand much faster than nature makes it and the problem is accelerating,” he says. “In the end, we will have to stop consuming so much sand either by our own choice, or by some sort of civilisational collapse. And I prefer by our own choice.”

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